This version of Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean is an excellent retelling of the ancient legend. It’s part of her Heroes Series, which also include Odysseus, Perseus, and Theseus.
The first introduction we have to the book and Geraldine McCaughrean’s scintillating way of storytelling is, unusually, the very first page of the book. Even before the list of the “cast” in the story, before his family tree, before the left-side page of publishing info… before all that is a short page just begging to be read aloud. I can just see the wizened old man whose wiry arm shoots out towards me as I walk through a Greek marketplace-
“You there! Think you’re strong, do you?… There’s not a man born but a cockroach could endure more hardships. Not one. Not now. Listen! before the constellations of beast stars are herded away into the far distant barns of night… Listen! before the god who holds up the sky grows weary and lets it fall- because there is no one now who could prevent it crashing onto the place beneath. Hercules is gone…”
Isn’t that just the way you want your kids to hear such legend? Not as a dry lesson with a worksheet to follow, but as an amazing adventure! McCaughrean can do it! We’ve enjoyed other retellings by her, including Canterbury Tales and Gilgamesh.
When I took Hercules off of our bookshelf, I asked my daughter what her favorite part was. She said she liked how the scared king hid in a brass box every time Hercules returned to him to report that another “impossible task” had been completed. Quiet humor is evident in McCaughrean’s writings- the characters of the ancient story come to life, and this is how the kids get enthralled with the story and remember it years later.
Our homeschool follows the classical education method, which has students cycling three times through the same material on increasingly more difficult levels. Keeping this in mind, I buy a fifth-grade book to read aloud to my first grader. Then she reads it on her own in fifth grade, and then in ninth grade she reads a more difficult version. This happens for each grade level, for instance, in second grade it would be a sixth-grade book and then a tougher version in tenth grade. Buying such a high-quality hardcover book that lasts through all these readings makes it an even better value!
Geraldine McCaughrean’s books are written to a higher age group so when I read them to my elementary kids out loud, I do some fast editing. In Hercules, I left out that he was assigned the 12 tasks because he killed his wife, 6 kids, in-laws, and servants in a drunken rage. Let them read all that when they’re older!
I really liked how Hercules was a gentle giant. I know I just said he killed everyone in a drunken rage, but he knew not to drink. He was forced into it (a lesson on peer pressure?). He shows regret when his strength damages something. He doesn’t like to use it to kill beautiful things like the Golden Stag of Cerynia. He has dear friends. He disapproves of mistreatment of the weak.
The book has no illustrations other than the front cover. However, many times when I was reading, my kids would suddenly jump up and run over to me, demanding to see the pictures because of the vivid descriptions. The chapters were a good length to read in one session to freshly bathed and pyjamaed kids. My younger daughter (then only 2) came in and out of the room and looked at other picture books, but she was quiet because she saw that the older kids were enthralled.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s talent is what makes these ancient legends come to life- and coming back to them in a few years will be a joy and not something for my kids to be intimidated by.